The joyous occasion of Durga Puja has transcended beyond the Bengali households and neighbourhoods in Kolkata and expanded across the seven seas, slowly creeping into the foreign lands. As we compare the different shades of Durga Puja from the perspective of a foreigner, we explore the concept of ‘themes’ that dominate the festival.
Martin Hříbek, is a professor in Bengali and Indian studies at the Institute of South and Central Asia, Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague. Upon his visit to Kolkata, he delivered a lecture at the Victorial Memorial, the infamous British colonial structure, titled “Durga Puja through foreign eyes.” In a conversation with Media India Group he exclaimed, “I returned to Calcutta after five years and even though certain elements of the Durga Puja might have changed, it still feels the same and the festivity has not dampened.”
Dr Hříbek in his lecture talked about the myriad ritualistic and cultural practices that vary from one household to another. He cited the example of the different ways in which the idols are made, from the traditional idols to the recent renditions of the Goddess pertaining to a theme, from the ek chala (single background) idols to the char chala (multiple backgrounds) idols. He applauds the “condensation of creative energy” and believes that even if the traditional forms of worship were to somehow fade into oblivion, the city’s creative spirit is what it takes to bring them back. “It’s amazing the form has been preserved. If you speak about preserving something. you are implying its almost dead. I don’t think it’s going to die. It’s a young festival in many ways. The bonedi bari Puja (aristocratic family pujas) may be fewer. Sometimes it happens that some forms fall into oblivion and then they are resurrected. I have much belief in the creative spirit of Calcutta (the former name of Kolkata) and if it happens, then somebody will take it up and revive it,” he added.
Some complain that the theme pujas are nothing but an extravagant display of the commercial culture but Dr Hříbek believes otherwise. To him, “Theme pujas revolve around different themes which help bring out the various aspects of the world to the revellers thereby drawing huge crowds. You can very well depict London as a theme or even rural Bengal as a theme. It helps in unifying the culture if not anything else and gives emphasis on the creativity and thought-process that goes behind the puja with that theme. Similarly, upon my last visit, I remember visiting a pandal that was decorated with different items made of burnt clay and another made of coconut husk. These only bring forward the work of artisans which otherwise may not see the light of day or may go unnoticed or unutilised.”
Themes and Connectivity
“For me, it’s about establishing the connectivity,” Dr Hříbek states. Echoing along the same lines, Joysree Dasgupta, one of the organisers of 95 Pally, a puja that draws crowd for its famous themes every year exclaimed, “This year our concept is illusion. The main motive was to re-phrase the way ‘theme’ pujas are looked at. It is just not on the external display, it is about internalising the feeling of being here.” 95 Pally welcomes its visitors to chimes of bells and ‘illusionary’ lights. The idol of the Goddess and her family is placed at the centre; however, the structure is such that one cannot have a full view of the Goddess. “The view and thus the perspective of the Goddess are scattered. One does not know for sure how she looked, so our perspectives of how we visualise her are fragmented and thus one can see the Durga idol through multiple perspectives. We even have mirrors attached to the body of the pandal facing the Durga idol from different angles, each giving a fragmented view; one is reflecting the feet, the other is reflecting the face but never the whole. The idea is to make the visitors go through an experience, one that they will remember,“ added Joysree.